What is the ISU Bible Study?

"When I give lectures on borderline or pseudo or folk science I am sometimes asked if similar criticism should not be applied to religious doctrine. My answer is of course, yes. Freedom of religion, one of the rocks upon which the United States was founded, is essential for free inquiry. But it does not carry with it any immunity from criticism or reinterpretation for the religions themselves. The words "question" and "quest" are cognates. Only through inquiry can we discover truth." -Carl Sagan, astronomer, philosopher, author

Ames Daily Tribune, Iowa/December 8, 1979

That sounds like a simple question. After speaking to ministers, ISU officials, ex-Bible Study members, psychologists, religion teachers and ISU Bible Study members themselves, you find it isn't.

No one questions the faith of its members; but there are those who have questions about its methods and purpose.

Its purpose as stated in the 1978-1979 ISU information handbook is "to examine both the Old and New Testaments of the Bible and to encourage intellectual honesty concerning Biblical truth."

What do people here say about it?

To Brad Meyer, a Bible Study member, it's a "Christian group in which you can talk about not only relationships to people but relationships to God."

To a young woman, a member until she was cast out this fall, it's a "group that withdraws love when most needed."

To Ron Lee, Bible Study member and chairman of the Iowa State Daily Publication Board, it's the group that helped him discover "sincere love" and the Bible. He learned through members that the "Bible made sense. It was rational, it wasn't mystical; it contains practical outlines for how to live a life."

To a young man, an ex-member, it's a group that preaches love but practices intolerance.

To the Rev. Jon Nesbett of the North Grand Baptist Chruch, it's a truly religious group that accomplishes his own goal: Bringing people to "accept Christ into their lives."

TO THE Rev. John Hamilton of the University Baptist Church, it's a group he suspects might inhibit "God's rule of growth."

To the Rev. James Supple of St. Thomas Aquinas Church, "It does a lot of good for a lot of people."

To the Rev. Roy Key of the First Christian Church, it may be a group that demands "members exchange one type of bondage for another."

To a heartbroken mother it's a group that estranged her son from his family, transforming a once brilliant student into a college dropout who failed all his senior year courses.

To a resigned father, it's a group that "hypnotized" his son, turning him into a "zombie with glassy eyes."

To two families, it's a group that drove their children to the point of suicide.

To some, the ISU Bible Study group is not a particular church - or a sect - or a cult; it's a local phenomenon - part of a national phenomenon -"The suspected testing ground for a national movement."

Why so many differing opinions?

Oone reason is that while ISU Bible. Study meetings are public, other related activities seem cloaked in secrecy; "and where there is so much secrecy," one minister explained to this reporter, "people get the idea there is something to hide."

A second reason is that stories told by former members to ministers, their parents and to this reporter invite questions that statements of faith by Bible Study members and their leaders (called elders) do not answer.

Stories told by students and ex-students who were unsuccessfully recruited raise more questions about the Bible Study's proselytizing methods.

Uncomprehending families tell stories about suddenly estranged children, and bank accounts turned over to the Bible Study group.

And then there are those headlines of the last two years.

In April a series of articles in the ISU Daily linked the ISU Bible Study group to a number of seemingly unrelated activities: The Higher Educational Opportunity Service (THEOS), which at one time published the Life Herald newspaper; Today's Student - another evangelical-oriented newspaper published in Ames and distributed nationally; and a bookstore.

The article disclosed that Theos also owned the offset printing press which still another organization called Life Now subsequently used to print the Life Herald's successor, Today's Student.

THEOS president Jim McCotter, and Gary Kellogg, a member of the THEOS board, were named as elders of ISU Bible Study, as was Mike Stohlmeyer, identified as president of Life Now.

The article raised the question of where financing for the newspaper(s) came from. The reporter, Margaret Grove, wrote she made repeated efforts to reach McCotter and Kellogg for statements but they never returned her calls.

In November 1978 ISU Bible Study gained statewide attention when an article in the Des Moines Register reported that some members of the group interrupted courses at ISU by giving religious opinions or quoting the Bible during class.

Last spring, an Iowa State journalism professor identified five of the members on the Iowa State Daily Publication Board as being affiliated with the Bible Study group.

Turmoil has embroiled the board and its activities since last spring when allegations were made that board members affiliated with ISU Bible Study were attempting to influence the student newspaper's independence. Lee has said the Bible Study group does not have an interest in dominating the board.

Four of those identified as being affiliated with ISU Bible Study are named in a suit alleging six board members violate a provision of the board's articles of incorporation which states, "Membership shall cease...upon graduation." The student newspaper's editor, who brought the case to the attention of the Story County Attorney, said the group a board member belongs to has no bearing on whether a member is illegally seated or not.

While she said "It's no mere coincidence that four of the five (that number has changed to six since another member was added to the case), people whose membership is in question are" associated with ISU Bible Study, she noted, "One of the reasons for taking the case to court is to keep religion out of resolution of the problem."

Lee said he does feel the action surrounding the meaning of the articles of incorporation is indirectly a persecution of his religious beliefs.

During the last two months this reporter has been asking questions. The more answers given, the more questions there seem to be to ask. We did not speak face to face with any elder although several people offered names.

The only elder The Tribune could contact, Mike Stohlmeyer, refused personal interview. He did agree to answer questions submitted in writing. The president of ISU Bible Study, Jeff Newburn, also agreed to answer questions by correspondence only.

Second, Stohlmeyer stated, by phone there are no ISU Bible Study elders; what's more, he said there never have been. There are elders in a group called the Ames Fellowship Church which few people contacted had ever heard of until this week.

In a personal interview, Ron Lee, ISU Bible Study member, confirmed Stohlmeyer's statement. "The Bible Study has no elders," Lee said.

In response to "Since when?" he answered, "There haven't been any elders since.." and then, asked to repeat the last word, said firmly "There haven't been any elders. You may be confused with the Ames Fellowship Church."

Lee named the elders: Mike Stohlmeyer, Brent Knox, Steven Hogan, Craig Carla and Paul Rath. Coria, incidentally, was named In the ISU Daily article as representing Life Herald in 1978 when that group approached the ISU Government of the Student Body to discuss a special allocation of "purchase of service" agreement for the publication.

Until now, the term "Elder" as applied to leaders of the ISU Bible Study, has gone unchallenged. In fact, a March 1978 Daily article quotes Newburn, then as now president of the group, as defining the word for readers.

The article states: "According to Newburn, the term "Elder" as used by ISU Bible Study means someone 'older and wiser, someone who leads the group.'" This is a portion of Ron Lee's statement on why he is a member of the ISU Bible Study. He agreed to talk to The Tribune in the presence of another Bible Study member in his own home. Lee, chairman of the Iowa State Daily publication board, is a particularly articulate member of the group. He said he would avoid using the typical "Bible Study jargon," which is difficult for "outsiders" to understand.

He consented to speak only after being convinced that someone from the group should make a statement, and after conferring with other members.

He says:

"When I first started going to meetings I was impressed by the sincere love. People weren't phony; it wasn't an act they were putting on; no one was thinking they were someone special....You pass other people on the street and they say 'hi' and go right by. Now sometimes I say 'How are you doing - really?"

The second value the group has given him, Lee said, is the Bible. "The Bible makes sense....I'd heard a lot of sermons before but I'd never heard how to put the Bible in practice."

Brad Meyer is the other member who agreed to give a statement. He came to The Tribune office with written notes, accompanied by his wife. He too spoke with sincerity, trying to communicate with words the meaning of his membership.

"Religion is a personal thing, sometimes hard to communicate. People get emotional and react in different ways, especially to the media because you never know for sure how it's going to come out in the news and you don't want people to misunderstand." Meyer says he and his wife were not proselytized; they joined the group after being impressed with what they saw at the prayer meetings.

..."he bible talks about ways to learn how to communicate, if nothing more than to say you should. It seems we shouldn't need anyone to tell us but we do. It tells us attitudes, specifically as it applies to college students, between professors and students....If I come into a class with a good attitude - you read in the paper how grades improved when you start changing attitude. They talk about study habits - the word they use is diligent, putting studies in right priority,...with right concentration level. As a Christian you do the best work you can.

"Because it's a Christian group we talk about not only relationships to people but to God and Christian doctrine. Christian - it's hard to explain in physical terms. You can't grab hold of the wind. The whole thing evolves on what the personal perspective on Christ is. That's the way I see it."

Few would quarrel with such words, but questions about the group persist. As the Rev. Roy Key says, " I too believe we should be committed. When I ask questions about what they believe, they answer as well or better than I could. The problem is I have the feeling they are leaving many things unsaid."

Key and other ministers contacted by The Tribune tell of hearing different stories from ex-Bible Study members trying to come to grips again with life; from parents estranged from their children by their membership in ISU Bible Study, about bank accounts and possessions being turned over to this non-profit campus organization.

"Parents come to me, some from out-of-state, heartbroken about their inability to communicate with their children. They say they come home saying, "You're not Christians. You're not going to be saved. They tell me their children have told them the group asks them to turn over their life savings."

Not long ago Key said he counseled a boy who was trying to separate himself from the group. "He was on the verge of suicide and about to be committed to psychiatric care. There were points he couldn't agree on with Bible Study. He got the idea because be disagreed he'd committed an unpardonable sin; that he hated God. I worked with that till I got him feeling good. Then, pfft - out of my life. That's all I know."

Key has discovered something changed the young people he talks to who want to leave the group. "Some who come back told us of the terrible struggle to come back," Key observed. "And I understand from the kids they (ISU Bible Study leaders) tell them various churches are not really Christian; they shouldn't be in them.

"What bothers me, I'm fearful, is it's a homogenous group that doesn't reflect the real world where there are people of varying degrees of intellectual, social and spiritual maturity. My understanding of the church is that it must be big enough to reach out to everybody, even if they don't agree on each specific point.

"To us liberty and unity are a happy marriage. I see the result of their work as unity at the expense of liberty. It's really demanding conformity."

The other night a young girl we'll call Judy told us her version of what it meant to her to be a member of ISU Bible Study. She was a member for three months, leaving in the fall of this year.

Vivacious, Judy has the ability to laugh at herself. She is hurt, disillusioned and angry. Unlike other members and ex-members contacted, Judy had "accepted Christ into her life" before coming to Ames.

She came here from a small Iowa town because "Ames sounded more interesting." Besides, her older sister was living here. "My sister joined the ISU Bible Study when she came to college in 1973. After she graduated she joined the church (Ames Fellowship Church). She found out it was a group that fellowshipped with ISU Bible Study. (Fellowship, she explained, means meeting to sing, talk, and "go through the Bible.") Her sister told her if she were coming here she had to join the group.

According tso Judy, the lines between Ames Fellowship Church and the ISU Bible Study group are more name than fact. "Nobody had to say it but when you're in a group there's some things you just understand. ISU Bible can't admit they've got elders because they're not in the college."

The fellowship, Judy said, is broken down into teams. Each team is under the supervision of two elders, one "deacon" (deacons, explained another ex-member, are appointed by the elders) and two "top sisters." "The sisters are like deacons but women can't be elders or deacons." Judy says she was instructed never to speak to an "outsider" without permission from a sister, elder or deacon. If none are available to consult, she could make the contact - if she went with another Fellowship member.

"They told me several times people are against us. Really be careful whom you speak to." (All interviews this reporter has had with members have been in the presence of another person. When beginning research for this story, other reporters mentioned ISU Bible Study members never talk to non-members alone.)

The first difference of opinion Judy had with her supervisors came about because of a wedding. A friend from her hometown was getting married and Judy wanted to attend.

"They said I could go but I had to take someone along. They argued and argued. Over and over." (Here Judy's voice dropped and softened- and slowed. Her words came out in the same coaxing but soothing rhythm other Informants had used when saying what had been urged on them.)

"'Don't go,'" she remembers them saying. "But if you do go take someone with you." Judy insisted she had a right to be alone with her friends. She went..

Judy and her sister shared a small apartment with a married couple. She said the husband had absolute control over the women's actions. "They expected me to be like God. I had to memorize the Bible and repeat it to other people just like they told you." On Friday and Sunday night she attended combined ISU Bible Study and Ames Fellowship services where "the elders give big sermons." On Sunday morning she "broke bread" with her team, as she explained it, singing and discussing the events of the week and sharing Bible verses. She met with her team again for Sunday night services.

No one told her she had to go to every service. She went because she felt so guilty if she renegged. "Everybody else went and they'd know you didn't and they'd look at you."

At some team meetings the deacon passed out cards returned by entering ISU students. All new students receive an information brochure and response card from ISU Bible Study, asking if they want to know more about the group or Christ. Then a team of two is assigned the task of convincing them to join the group.

"They found out they'd get kicked out of the dorm if they don't ask for specific people. They can't just go around knocking at doors anymore," Judy explained. (Dorm rules were changed when students complained about being bothered by zealous Bible Study members they did not know.)

Judy also discovered her new friends disapproved of dating. "They don't like young people dating until the spirit moves you," she said. "You're supposed to congregate with all the people in the church. Some day, they tell you, some man will get the spirit and knock at your door. He will talk to the woman and she will share the spirit and they will marry."

She argued with the Elders that she loved her friend. They insisted it was not love but lust. She continued seeing her friend and eventually slept with him. When she came home her sister asked where she had been. "I'm not a liar," Judy said. "I told her."

An elder and a deacon and someone she considered a special friend talked to her. They told her never to see the boy again. Their restriction was against everything she believed. "I really thought I loved him," she told us. "You don't love someone and drop him. Even the Lord wouldn't do that."

She made an appointment to meet her boyfriend at The Towers. Someone saw her walking by herself in that direction and "presumed I was going to see him. I was but they never saw me meet him," she grinned.

James Wolfe, a member of ISU's religion and philosophy department, said to his positive knowledge elders, at least up to now, have led the ISU Bible Study.

"Sure there are elders. It's never been challenged," Brad Meyer (a student Wolfe regards highly and a Bible Study member) told me in a class on campus religion. He also explained elders during a presentation on the ISU Bible Study I gave at St. Andrews Lutheran Church. He told me ISU Bible Study has given itself an additional name, or the core of the group has been Ames Fellowship Church, and regards itself as the "church among churches."

According to Rev. Roy Key, the group has been known at various times as "Alpha and Omega" and "The Society for Advancement of Intellectual Honesty."

KEY'S testimony might not hold up on a witness stand, he admitted, "But I know it as well as I know anything else that's in Ames because there were some of the same people in those organizations and they told me they'd just changed the names. I never knew why."

Editor's Note: On Monday, part two will cover the stories of two students who almost became ISU Bible Study members and interviews with parents.

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